Having a food allergy or coeliac disease can make eating out seem impossible – but it doesn’t have to be! Dietitian Jane Dostine’s easy tips will help minimise your risk.
For most people, eating out is a treat. But if you suffer from an allergy, or coeliac disease, the risks associated with eating commerciallyprepared food – not to mention the hassles that come with having to plan ahead – can sometimes outweigh the benefits of a night out. Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee that food prepared by someone else will be free from allergens. But, with a few easy steps, you can enjoy a night away from your kitchen.
Step 1 – First things first
Allergic reactions can be very serious, or even fatal. So, before you make a restaurant reservation, it’s essential that you have an Action Plan in place (provided by your allergy specialist). An Action Plan is an easy-to-understand set of instructions for your friends and family to follow, in case you have an allergic reaction. (You can find Action Plan templates at www.allergy.org.au/content/view/10/3/).
If your child has allergies, you may not want to risk any chance of a reaction – even if you have an Action Plan in place. So it’s probably best to avoid giving them restaurant food all together. Take their ‘safe’ food with you or, if you must, order the most simple dish possible for them.
Step 2 – Choose the right cuisine
Allergens can be found anywhere, but choosing a restaurant that serves ‘lower-risk’ cuisine can make eating out easier.
If you have a peanut or tree nut allergy: ‘Steak houses’ may be your best bet, but they still serve high-risk foods, like marinades, sauces, gravies, pastries and desserts, so be mindful of this when you order. Avoid Asian, Indian and African cuisines, and vegetarian dishes, as they are all likely to use nuts in their cooking.
Fish or shellfish allergy: Even the cooking odours from seafood can cause an allergic reaction, so avoid seafood restaurants and Asian cuisines. Vegetarian, and reputable restaurants with seafood-free options, are better choices.
Sesame allergy: Your best bet is Europeanstyle cuisines (French, German, Italian, etc) – these traditionally don’t use sesame products. But always check salads, breads and oils. Avoid Lebanese and Middle Eastern-style cuisine.
Dairy allergy: Asian-style cooking is probably lowest-risk. Avoid European-style cuisines (French, German, Italian, etc) – these regularly feature cheese and dairy.
Egg allergy: Eggs are found in almost everything, but vegan restaurants will be eggfree. Failing that, ‘modern Australian’ (cafe-style) meals, such as grilled seafood and meat and three-veg, are generally safe when served in reputable restaurants – but steer clear of creamy sauces and breading or crumbing.
Soy allergy: As per egg allergies, cafe-style meals may be a better choice. Asian cuisines generally need to be avoided, as well as many vegetarian meals, which use soy beans and tofu. Stay away from bread (most contain soy flour), avoid reformed seafood and skip Asian sauces.
No matter what kind of allergy you have, it’s best to avoid buffets – the risk of contamination is very high, as serving utensils can be shared and foods can be accidently mixed. Choose the right cuisine
Step 3 – Select the right restaurant
Selecting the right restaurant can be half the battle. A few simple tricks can go a long way!
Google restaurants. Customer reviews can give you an indication of how attentive the waitstaff are, which may mean the difference between a safe meal and a contaminated one. Good service also goes hand-in-hand with staff who know the menu in detail, making ordering easier.
If a restaurant won’t accept bookings, they may have a high customer turnover – which can lower your chances of receiving attentive service. Select a restaurant where you can book ahead, and hopefully, this will increase your chances of having an allergen-free meal.
It’s also a good idea to book a reservation outside of the lunch or dinner rush.
Cost can count. More expensive restaurants tend to have better informed (and more accommodating) waitstaff and chefs. This doesn’t mean you should only choose fine dining restaurants – but as with most things in life, you get what you pay for. It’s worth paying a few extra dollars to safe-guard your health.
Check out a restaurant’s website. The most suitable eateries will have a good reputation, and having a website can be an indication of how well-established a restaurant is.
If a restaurant doesn’t have a current menu posted on their site, call and ask for a copy. This will reveal if they have any allergy-friendly options and, if not, how easy it will be to order an allergen-free meal. Most large restaurant chains have complete nutrition information available, too.
It’s best to avoid food courts and takeaway venues, as food service workers may have a limited knowledge of food preparation for people with food allergies.
Once you’ve selected a restaurant, it’s a good idea to phone ahead to explain your needs. But keep in mind that you’ll probably need to explain them again to the person serving you.
Don’t just request that your dish be prepared free of your allergen – explain your reason for allergen avoidance, and stress the seriousness of a potential allergic reaction. Wearing a Medic Alert bracelet will help emphasise your point!
Jump online and purchase an Allergen Card (containing allergen ingredient information) from the Anaphylaxis Australia website (available for $2.20 each or $15.50 for a 9-card set). Keep this card in your wallet, so you always have one on hand to show to restaurant staff. Purchase them at www.allergyfacts.org.au/product.html.
Step 5 – Peruse the menu
Take plenty of time to read through the menu. Don’t be afraid to ask for help with complicated or foreign cooking terms.
Before you order, find out which dishes can be made ‘free from’, so you know your options.
Ask your waiter (or the chef ) to describe how the meal is prepared – just in case. A meal might be free of nuts, for example, but it’s possible that it’s made using peanut oil.
Don’t assume a ‘safe’ dish in one restaurant is the same in another – always check the preparation method.
Become familiar with alternative names and ingredients of your allergens, such as arachis (peanut), edamame (soy), and bulgar (wheat).
Step 6 – Place your order
The safest dishes tend to be basic – grilled or roast meat (served without marinades or sauces), steamed vegetables and potato, and fresh fruit for dessert.
Ask to have barbecued meat wrapped in foil, before cooking, to separate it from other food.
If you order wine, ask to check the bottle’s label. Winemakers use a clarification process called ‘fining’ to remove sediments from their wine, and may use egg whites or casein (a milk protein) as their fining ingredient. By law, these must be declared on the label.
Instead of having to explain the intricacies of your allergy every time you eat out, become a regular at a local dining venue. (Always doublecheck your choice is allergen-free, though – the recipe or chef can always change!)
Step 7 – Taste test your meal
Don’t sit down to a meal absolutely ravenous and rush into it – you need to proceed cautiously. A good idea is to try the ‘sniff, lick and wait’ test:
First, smell your food. The aroma of a dish can indicate if an allergen (like fish) is present and is an important warning sign not to eat it.
Second, have a small taste and allow your tongue to come in contact with your food. Don’t take a big bite – a ‘lick’ is all that’s required.
Third, wait five minutes to see if you experience any kind of allergic reaction, usually indicated by a tongue tingling sensation.
Finally, all being well, enjoy the meal! But remember, always have an Action Plan in place. We can’t stress that enough!